OMS: Open comes in many flavors

All is not necessarily blissful in the land of open mobile software. Though much of the industry has embraced the notion that open platforms, coupled with open operating systems, will create endless new possibilities for applications and services, there isn’t much agreement on what kind of ‘open’ will bring them about.

The Open Mobile Summit last week in San Francisco demonstrated that disagreement with alacrity. Speakers from all over the industry showed up to offer their opinions on the meaning of open, how we get there and how money can be made off of it. That seems pretty straight-forward, but most of the attendees I talked to left with more questions than they had beofre they arrived. There certainly wasn’t a lack of information or a shortage of people to supply it. The problem was that the differing viewpoints and business agendas of those supplying the information didn’t paint any clear pictures. Open is basically what each company chooses to make of it.

For many content developers, open basically means open distribution, creating platforms that allow companies to sell their content independently of the carrier deck or other authorized portal. Handset and mobile device makers want open access, which would allow their hardware to run on any operator’s network. Openness can also be applied to platforms, which allows any developer to design apps and services for any software platform. Then there’s the concept of the open mobile Internet, which would not only allow for open distribution and open development, but free content providers from dealing with individual devices. In theory, a Web app run through a standards-based mobile browser is the most liberating “open” of them all.

The nastiest debate, however, appears to be raging over a different type of open: open software, particularly the operating system. Since Google first started leading the open-source mobile OS charge with its Android platform, the industry has gone open crazy. Nokia announced it is buying up the remaining shares of Symbian and spinning it off to into a foundation, which will offer Symbian as a freely licensed, open-source OS. Meanwhile the LiMo Foundation has been gaining major carrier support for its competing Linux-based operating system.

Is open-source the new savior of wireless data? That question was the subject of one of the most contentious debates at the Open Mobile Summit, pitting Symbian against Google. Symbian North America general manager Jerry Pannagrossi asked the audience just how many of them used Linux as the OS on their desktop of laptop PCs. It was a developer’s conference after all so several hands did go up, but Pannagrossi mainly proved his point that just because a platform is open doesn’t mean it will be widely adopted. That might seem like an odd thing for a Symbian executive to say since Symbian is going open-source and royalty free, but Pannagrossi wasn’t discounting the value of openness; rather he was emphasizing execution. Symbian may be turning into an open-platform, but that fact alone won’t be responsible for its future success.

Google mobile platforms group manager Rich Miner, however, shot back with an audience poll of his own. He asked how many people owned a TiVo or other DVR, which are primarily powered by the Linux OS. While Linux may not have done much to dislodge Microsoft and Apple in the PC world, it has enabled the creation of numerous non-traditional media and computing devices apart from PCs. Miner’s point: Whatever the smartphone may be, it’s certainly not a PC. Open-source platforms like Linux have clearly demonstrated their ability to adapt and scale to these different device categories. It may not be a business mobile of its own, but open-source OSes have the flexibility to drive whatever business model you can come up with.

The great irony of the open debate is that its antithesis closed-platform has suddenly gained new credibility in the last year. I’m, of course, speaking of the iPhone, which tends to violate almost every notion of openness discussed at the Summit. The iPhone may be sold by single operator, its applications may be distributed from a single portal and its OS may be based on Apple’s proprietary OSX software, but its also been hugely popular with consumers and app developers alike. Its app store aside, the iPhone, through its powerful Safari browser, has opened the mobile phone to a wealth of Web content that previously wasn’t accessible on handsets due to their browser limitations. Apple raises a new question in the openness debate: if the end-goal of openness is to increase accessibility and choice to the end-user, then maybe being closed isn’t a bad way to achieve it.

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